The National Transportation Safety Board will hold a 4-day public hearing on the safety of helicopter emergency medical services (EMS) operations beginning on Tuesday, February 3, 2009, at 9:00 a.m. The hearing will be open to the public and will take place in the Board Room and Conference Center at 429 L'Enfant Plaza, S.W., Washington, D.C. This hearing will also be telecast on the Board's website (www.ntsb.gov). In addition, the Board is requesting submissions from the EMS community of materials related to aviation safety to be part of a public docket used in support of the hearing.
The goal of the upcoming hearing is for the Safety Board to learn more about helicopter EMS operations so that it can better evaluate the factors that lead to accidents. The Board will invite expert witnesses to provide sworn testimony. The majority of these witnesses will participate as part of small panels addressing particular safety issues. Additionally, several organizations will be granted "party status" to the hearing so that they may question the witnesses directly. The witnesses and parties will represent a range of EMS-related communities, including pilots, medical personnel, managers, and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials who provide oversight.
Helicopter EMS operations provide an important service to the public by transporting seriously ill patients or donor organs to emergency care facilities. The pressure to conduct these operations safely and quickly in all conditions, including during inclement weather, at night, and on unfamiliar landing sites, has the potential to increase EMS operational risk compared to normal passenger-carrying aviation operations.
Helicopter EMS safety has been an ongoing concern of the Safety Board. In January 2006, the Board issued a special investigation report on EMS operations. Many of the 55 EMS-related aviation accidents (fatal and non-fatal) that occurred between January 2002 and January 2005 could have been prevented with simple corrective actions, including oversight, flight risk evaluations, improved dispatch procedures, and the incorporation of available technologies. As a result, the Board issued four safety recommendations to the FAA, which have not yet been fully implemented.
Over the past 12 months, the Safety Board has investigated an additional nine fatal EMS accidents, which killed 35 people. This drastic increase in fatalities prompted the Board to hold this public hearing. "We have seen an alarming rise in the numbers of EMS accidents, and the Safety Board believes some of these accidents could have been prevented if our recommendations had been implemented," said Member Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the hearing's Board of Inquiry. "This hearing will be extremely important because it can provide an opportunity to learn more about the industry so that possibly we can make further recommendations that can prevent these accidents and save lives."